Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In which I fold

Saturday. The weather was gorgeous. We were having friends over for dinner. Rose and I went to the grocery store in the morning, and then went to sit out on the street with our friends.

Rose was cleaning and fixing up her bicycle.

I sat, watched, and drank tea.



My computer was tucked away on a shelf in my room. And I... couldn't bear to turn it on.

All day, I told myself I'd write a post later. Or just post a picture. Something. I wasn't going to quit now.

But I didn't.

And lord, what a relief.

I love posting here, and the past month of constant posting has been an interesting exercise in examining and writing about my life. I know that I've given a more rounded picture of what I do here, and what it's like, and that most of my favorite posts from the last month would never have been written if I hadn't committed to writing every day.

But then there were the crap days. Where I had nothing to say, and it showed.

Eh voila. Not the end of the world, to be sure, though it does mean that I have forfeited my chance to win this prize.

Here's to more frequent (if not daily) posting in the coming weeks.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Pizza's here!

Snoskred asks:

How's the food in Senegal?

This isn’t the answer that I intended to write, but it’s the answer I feel like writing today.

Tonight, Rose and I have embarked on a great adventure. At time of writing, I’m still not sure how it will turn out, but I’m highly optimistic.

Rose says that she cautions me against being overly hopeful, but that she appreciates my positive attitude.

We have decided… to order a pizza. To be delivered at home.

I know. It can’t be done.

For starters, there’s no such thing as a street address in this country. Mail goes to post boxes in post offices, roads aren’t marked, and there are no names or numbers on any of the buildings.

Usually, when someone is coming to our apartment for the first time, we just tell them to go to the pharmacy at the corner (which is where the bus stops) and to call us. Then we walk them to our door.

But that would completely ruin the point of delivery.

And we have it in our heads that we will sit at home, eat pizza on the couch and watch Office Space on DVD.

We’ve both been working like crazy for the past few weeks. We’re exhausted, stressed, and although we love going out to the jazz clubs at midnight on a Friday night in our prettiest high heels, we thought, for a change, we’d stay home.

It started out poorly. I wanted a veggie-filled pizza.

Not on the menu.

Me: Do you have vegetables?
Them: No.
Me: What about mushrooms?
Them: Yes, those we have.
Me: What other kinds of vegetables?
Them: Like eggplant or zucchini?
Me: Yes, exactly!
Them: Yeah, we don’t have that.
Me: I’m going to have to call you back.

So I moped a bit, and tried to convince Rose to order pizza from the farther place that she hates, to no avail.

So I called back.

And felt a ray of hope. There are two kinds of customer service people. Those who look for a solution, and those who… don’t.

If you tumble on the first kind, anything is possible, and they’ll go to surprising lengths to help you.

Then there’s the other kind. The ones who tell you they couldn’t possible mix two kinds of juice (both in large pitchers at the counter, sold for the same price) because it’s not safe.

The woman at the Boite à Pizza, it turned out was the first kind.

Me: Can I have a pizza with mushrooms and onions?
Her: And tomatoes?

Then she passed me to the deliveryman, to whom I gave my most detailed directions and my phone number.

I hung up feeling encouraged.

And it turns out, now that I'm completing this entry three hours later, my optimism was entirely warranted. Less than half an hour after my second phone call, a motorbike pulled up right in front of our house.

“That wasn’t hard to find at all.”

And he had change for my big bill.

We made sure to get his name so that we can ask for him next time.

I think I might be getting a bit jaded, here. I’ve started assuming people being difficult when they’re not giving me what I want, instead of maybe just… doing their job. And maybe I’m asking for something unreasonable.

In other words, it’s not the woman’s fault there were no zucchini or artichoke pizzas on the menu.

And when I opened the pizza, it was covered in mushrooms, fresh tomato, and onions, just like the woman had promised. As well as unadvertised green peppers.

Turns out, the only flaw in our evening was… my fault.

The Office Space DVD was broken.

Luckily, the School of Rock DVD worked like a charm.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

No turkey for me, today, but I'm cool with that.

It's always a little sad when I know that my whole family is together without me, but that's the choice I make to be here. And so when I'm done with this post, I'll plug in my headset and call them on Skype.

Enjoy the holiday, everyone. Eat well, be thankful, and have a nice day!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I thought I had an out...

When I came home and the internet wasn't working, I thought about how that was the end of my perfect attendence record and I was disappointed.

But, y'all? I'm sleepy. And I just bought new pillows and pretty lilac pillow cases (remember Bed, Bath, and Beyond?) and my bed looked awfully inviting.

And the next question is about food, and I have plenty to say about the food here (yum! also yuck! and again yum! except for gah, isn't there anything else?) but... not tonight.

I sat down at my computer to shut it off. But the voice recorder was plugged in, and I needed to upload some interviews and figure out what other files were. And by the time I'd done all that, there was a crow from across the hall: "Hey, the internet is working again."

It wasn't a crow. It was Rose. She crowed. It's a verb.

Y'all. I'm going to bed.

Ba suba, inshallah. (See you tomorrow, god willing.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Just imagine what IKEA looks like...

Shopping in Africa

Monday, November 20, 2006

Welcome to the neighborhood...

Anna asks:

Did you know the president of Iran recently visited Senegal (I just found out tonight... Brother was showing me his website)? Which means that my two favorite dictators have visited your fine country. Does that excite you as much as it does me?

Crap, is it time for another blog post?

I'll tell you, this having work to do really cuts into my sitting around time. And then the next thing I know it's dark, and I'm tired, and I still haven't written word one for you all.

Luckily, today question is perhaps my favorite of them all.

Of course, Anna has the advantage over many of you that she is my oldest friend in the world (oldest in duration of friendship. Age-wise, she's a month younger than me.) Point being, she can skip over the getting-to-know-you-type openers, and go directly to the heart of the matter.

So, Anna, yes, I did know that the president of Iran recently visited Senegal. But I only found out after he was already gone, so I didn't get to see him.

(For those who are curious, the other leader of state Anna mentions is the President of Libya, who stopped by in April, for Senegal's Independence Day celebrations.)

But what I bet you don't know Anna, is that Iran is also building a car factory here in Senegal. Who knew Iran even had a state-brand of cars? Not me!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What am I doing here?

Margaret asks:

How did you land in Senegal? Did you find work prospects first? Didn't you mention you write for Voice of America? How did you get that gig?

Actually a bunch of people asked pretty much the same thing.

The first bit: Why Senegal? I get all the time.

To wit:
Naomi: I’m a freelance journalist in Dakar.
Other Person.: [blank stare]
Naomi: That’s in Senegal.
Other person: [blank stare]
Naomi: In West Africa. You know, the continent? Africa? It’s in the western part.
Other person: How’d you end up there? [insert tone of bewilderment and possible derision]

Occasionally, the conversation goes a bit differently. Say, for instance, I’m talking to the foreign editor of a newspaper.

Naomi: I’m a freelance journalist in West Africa.
Foreign Editor: Oh great. Where are you based?
Naomi: In Dakar. Senegal.
Foreign Editor: Senegal? What happens in Senegal? How’d you end up there?

Or sometimes:

Naomi: I’m from America.
Senegalese Person: I’ve always wanted to go to America.
Naomi: Yes, America is very nice.
Senegalese Person: So why’d you decide to come to Senegal?

Although to be fair, there’s also a plenty of:

Naomi: I live in Senegal.
Other person: Oh wow!
Other person: Tell me all about it. What’s it like? How’d you end up there?

And clearly, the people reading this blog fall into the latter category.

So the short (and probably truest) answer is that I’m in Senegal because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I’d been working as an editorial assistant at a really cool magazine for a couple years. I got to meet amazing people who were traveling the world and writing stories about it, and it confirmed the idea I’d had all along: that was what I wanted to be doing.

But Really Cool Magazine was never going to give me the opportunity. So I decided to make my own opportunity.

Worst case, I’d hate it or fail miserably and go home.

Best case, I’d be living in an interesting place and doing the work I’d always dreamed of doing.

I spoke to anyone and everyone I could find who could give me advice. Anyone who’d ever been in, near, or heard of Senegal, anyone who’d ever worked with, for, or next to journalists, or watched the news on TV, and anyone who seemed the slightest bit interested in hearing the details of my neuroses surrounding this scary decision.

In the beginning, all I knew was I wanted to go to Africa. After the first couple of conversations, where people mentioned that there were fewer journalists based in West Africa than elsewhere on the continent (official bureaus, for instance, tend to be located in Nairobi or Johannesburg), I settled on Dakar.

Thanks to Really Cool Magazine, I had a lot of contacts in the journalism world. And almost every time I called a friend, they gave me a bunch of other ideas, names, and suggestions.

I made a million phone calls. I met with any editor or journalist who would meet with me. I looked for ideas from people who’d spent time in Senegal.

And basically, that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

The Voice of America work is a bit of an exception—the West Africa bureau moved from Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, to Dakar, and they advertised on Journalism Jobs that they needed new stringers. I wasn't even looking, but a friend was, and she forwarded the link to me. None of the other work I’ve found (ever, really, including any of my internships or previous jobs) has been advertised anywhere.

I wouldn’t say I’ve really figured this out yet. I still feel like I’m pretending when people ask and I say, “I’m a journalist.” But, it’s less pretend than it was six months ago.

It’s not easy. Imagine sitting at your laptop all by yourself, staring at the screen and trying to figure out how you’re going to convince someone you’ve never met to pay you to write about something they’ve never seen and probably aren’t that interested in. No one is going to tell you what to do with your week, where to start, or when you’re done.

But then, life isn’t about looking for easy.

It's about--

Hell if I know. But if it involves a beach within five minutes walk and hanging out and drinking attaya, then it can't be all wrong.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Ways of Seeing

Hmm. Turns out this one is a bit more hot than I wanted.

Please remember that I am just one person, that I speak for no one but myself, that my perceptions are flawed and of the moment.

And please also remember that there is a whole range of people in the world, in America, and in America's government.

We are not all perfect, but one or two bad eggs does not spoil the lot.

Friday, November 17, 2006

I lied

Thanks for all your lovely comments.

I felt kind of cheap, but that, apparently, didn't stop me.

I know I promised a better entry today, but it's not going to happen.

So instead, let's take a brief break from Africa and look at the pretty:

The dam for which my town is famous. Well for which it would be famous if my town were famous.

Another shot of home.


Far away from home, in another place I love.

Tonight I'm off to help make a Shabbat dinner with a friend from the US embassy. Good shabbos, happy weekend, and I'll be back tomorrow.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Where are you

I gotta tell you, y'all are falling down on the job.

Here I am, posting every day. Baring my very soul for your amusement and gratification.

And no comments?

We all know I only do this for the attention.

Sure, I could tell you that it's all an exercise in improving my writing. That writing down my thoughts on a (until recently very ir-)regular basis is cathartic. That it's about what it means to me.

But I could do that on paper, and not have to worry about the damn cuts in electricity.

There's only one reason to publish your thoughts in a public forum. It's so people will read them.

And then tell you what they thought.

I suppose one could argue that I leave approximately zero comments on anyone else's site.

And I suppose someone else might suggest that I'm only writing this as my entry today, because I'm exhausted and not in the mood to write anything else, but my innate fear of failure and of not following through obliges me to continue with NaBloPoMo.

Did I tell you, by the way, that Monsieur le Directeur de l'Hopital has refused his permission or me to meet with patients for my article? But that the charming communication director called me yesterday afternoon to tell me, thus saving me yet ANOTHER trip to the hospital? But that I was rude to him anyway, because I was pissed that they were fucking with my story?

I could tell you about today's exercises in futility, but, even though it took all day, and there was some ridiculousness, I did manage to get the information I needed, and actually met a seriously impressive woman, who I kind of wish I could be friends with.

Okay. Tomorrow is a writing day, and I promise a better entry, and to finally answer the next question on the list.

Now? I'm going running.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The saga continues

I know you didn’t think it was going to end there.

This morning, I roused myself at the unconscionable hour of 7:00 am. (A benefit of working from home in a time zone 5 hours later than EST: no commute and slow mornings).

I dragged myself to a taxi and negotiated a decent fare.

When I walked into Dr. Liar’s office he didn’t bat an eyelash over his supposed presence in Mali.

He didn’t try to explain why he was in Dakar or apologize for his lie. He jumped straight to rude.

“You will have to write a formal letter to the director of the hospital to request authorization to speak with the patients.” The magic was in his tone. It simply sang with subtext: get out of my face.

I remained polite: Yes, but could you possibly speak to the patients and ask their permission directly?


Could I meet with the directly personally to ask his permission?

Sure you could, but his office is all the way at the other end of the hospital. Again the tone, screaming the ludicrousness of such an idea.

Me=unfazed. “Okay. And his name is?”

“Monsieur the Director of the Fann Hospital?”

“Right but what’s his name?”

“Monsiur. The Director. OF THE FANN HOSPITAL.” [screaming subtext: get the FUCK out of my face]

Yes, but how can I write him a letter without his name? Without an address.?

“You must go to his office. It’s at the other end of the hospital.”

And then he stormed out of his office, shouting at his secretary on the way.


But of course, M. le Directeur was not available. I did manage to find the Communication Director for the hospital who was very friendly, although he could do nothing to help me.

It seems there was an all day meeting that was starting right that minute, and there was no way the director could give me his authorization. Come back tomorrow.

And so I will.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Welcome to my life

Didn't think I'd make it today. I was just about to go to bed when the electricity finally came back.

Luckily, I'd already written my post using the battery on my laptop. Oh the lengths I go to for you, NaBloPoMo...


I’m working on a story right now that requires a visit to a certain hospital clinic here in Dakar. I want to meet some of the patients, to give a bit of a human face to what otherwise would be a dry health story.

After a bit of chasing, I finally got the cell phone number of the doctor in charge of the clinic. Cell phone number because no one is ever in their office and the art of returning phone calls is as rare as it is treasured.

So I called him.

I explained who I was, what I was doing, and that I hoped to visit his clinic.

And he politely explained that he was in Bamako (the capital of Mali, a neighboring country) for a conference but he’d be back on Friday.

“So I can come visit the clinic next week?” I asked.

“Of course. Call me next week and we’ll coordinate.”

And so I hung up, annoyed at being put off another week (this story has dragged on for weeks already), a bit mystified that his Senegalese cell phone worked in a different country, but on the whole fairly satisfied.

But after talking with Rose, we determined that the missing piece was the clinic and its patients, not that particular doctor, and surely even if he was in Bamako, the clinic was still in Dakar. So I determined to call him back and get a number or a name of the person running the clinic in his absence.

“Who are you?”
“What do you want?”

“We spoke yesterday. I’m a journalist. I know you’re out of town, but can you give me the name of someone who is in Dakar now?”

“I can’t hear a think you’re saying.”
“What do you want?”
“Call back in an hour.”

It wasn’t exactly, “I’m going through a tunnel, csdroushsldfafjoai… You’re crsshhhedlkjlckagoid up! I think caaoseiruadskjf cut off.”

But it was close.

So I called back in an hour.

“I’m in Bamako. I’m very busy. I can’t possibly help.”

“Yes, I know, but do you have the number of someone at the clinic in Dakar? Someone who’s there now.”

“Call this number.” And he rattled off the digits.

I dialed.

Charming Receptionist: [answers phone]

I explain who I am, what I’m doing. That the doctor gave me this number as he’s in Bamako this week.

CR: What do you mean? No he’s not. I just saw him this morning.
Me: [Mute surprise]

The conversation continues.
Me: But this is the Right Clinic, is it not?
CR: No this is the psychiatric clinic. I’ll give you the right number.

Liar. Big, fat, baffling liar.

So tomorrow, I’m going to just show up at the Right Clinic. At 8 am, as that’s when Friendly Receptionist at the Right Clinic says he’ll be there. Because he’s the only person I can speak to as, she claims, everyone else is away on a trip.

I predict wild, raging success. Cooperation, inspiration, and efficient productivity.

And I wonder why it takes me so long to get anything done.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Scenes from my world

I'm working on a long posting about why I'm in Senegal and what I'm doing here.

Well, I'm working on figuring out why I'm in Senegal and what I'm doing here. Then I'll write the post.

A full day power cut and a bit of blogging burn out means today: pictures.

First off, the view from my bedroom window.
View from my bedroom window

And really, if you want to know why I'm in Senegal, that's as good a reason as any.

Of course, we should probably temper that reality with the view from the balcony at the front of the apartment.
Construction Zone

After months of (very loud) demolition, they've now built almost the entire house in the space of about two weeks. Rumor has it, the owner was getting antsy. And considering these boys now work on Sundays, I think I believe it.

Meet Fire, or Ahmadi, as he's also known. Neither of which are his real names. He is a constant presence in our neighborhood. A relative of Naw's I believe, with no job or prospect of one, it seems. But he's friendly and funny and makes the best attaya (very sweet, strong Senegalese tea).

And he's desperate for an American wife. Any takers?

And of course, the infamous Naw.
The Infamous Naw

Sitting in front of his shop, swatting at mosquitoes. He lets me jaay (sell) sometimes. Ostensibly to give me a chance to practice my Wolof, but also because it is a never-ending source of hilarity for all involved.

Click on any of the photos for a link to my flickr page, where there are more photos to be seen.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Least Favorite Thing: Blogger Beta

First off, the new blogger beta sucks.

I switched over like the obliging sheep that I am, because they asked. Why not update, said I? New is better, no?

No. Worse. New is worse.

I wrote my post last night at 10 pm, and was racing to finish, post, and shower before going out for the evening. Couldn’t not post. NaBloPoMo. Not going to give up now.

But the blogger beta kept telling me it was unable to process my request, try again later.

There is no later. Today was ending and tomorrow would be too late.

Frantic, I hit publish again and again. And again, again, again, and again. Apparently. Because today when I checked my blog, there were at least six postings of last night’s entry, all neatly in a row.


Anyway, that’s fixed now. Let’s hope BloBeta gets its act together equally.


Habeela asks:

Two questions in one: what is favorite and least favorite thing about living in Senegal?

These are always the hardest questions. And I might have a completely different answer tomorrow or three days ago or next year.

Least favorite is easier. Rose and I have a running tally of pet peeves, and they take turns being my least favorite things.

People who speak terrible French telling me, in French, I should really “make an effort” to speak a little French. You know, since I live in a francophone country.

People asking me if I can cook rice and telling me that NOW I could finally get a Senegalese husband.

People testing my Wolof with the same inane script, “how are you”, “what’s your name”, and then telling me, in the most condescending fashion, “ahh, you can speak Wolof really well!”

People testing my Wolof by saying something insanely complicated and fast, and then saying, “You don’t understand a thing!”

But those are just little things. For once, I’ll try to go a bit deeper.

Gonna have to resort to another spider story.

Before the enormous spiders of my doom (ESOMD™) appeared, there was a little spider. A jumping spider. Holding its ground between me and my apartment.

I had just come home and tromped up the steps with my key out ready to burst inside, dump all of my stuff, and collapse into a cold shower. Or plant myself under a fan and not move for the duration. Of the hot season.

But there, right on the doorframe, was an ugly, hairy little spider. And before my very eyes, it leaped—LEAPED, I tell you—from one wall to the other.

I don’t need to tell you the inherent danger in such a beast. I could be standing meters away and still be at risk of an assault. Not. Good.

I stood in front of the door for a minute or two, trying to figure out how to resolve this situation.

Had I been living in DC still, I’d probably have had to move. No other solution really. The spider had the high ground. Key be damned, there was no way to get into the apartment.

Here in Senegal, however, there was hope.

I turned right back down the stairs, walked over to Naw’s shop, and swallowed my (tiny remainder of) pride.

“I need help,” I said, and explained the standoff at my front door.

Giggling uncontrollably, he nevertheless stood immediately and agreed to come to my rescue. He called to one of the boys sitting around the shop to mind things and that he’d be back in a minute, and marched with me back up my stairs.

The spider was hiding in the doorframe, but we found it. And it hopped a few times, but Naw was quicker, and soon the spider no longer had any high ground. Except maybe moral high ground.

And Naw, through his tears of laughter, said, “If you’re afraid of that, you must also be afraid of flies.”

And then he went back to work.

The point of this story is not that spiders are my least favorite thing about Senegal. Nor is it that Naw is my favorite thing.

It’s about community here, and the way people are seemingly endlessly willing to go out of their way for you.

Badji and Matar come miles out of their way to run at a snail’s pace with me on a nearly daily basis. And hardly blink an eye when I have to cancel at the last minute because of guests, exhaustion, or poor planning.

Marie-Suzanne called me the other day to tell me she was making ngalax, and that she’d save me some until I could come over.

I get invitations to every holiday from every friend.

The shopkeeper near my old house yelled with welcome when I came back for a visit.

I lived in the same apartment in DC for nearly three years, and I never once met any of the people who lived on my floor.

Here, there is no anonymity. People know you, remember you, and keep track of what you’re up to. Because you live in their community and so are a part of their lives.

It’s nice. (Mostly.)

Least favorite.

There is no anonymity here.

Heh. That was cheap.

Okay, Rose covered sort of the same topic in a recent posting, and wrote about it much more thoughtfully and insightfully than I will.

But basically, I find it very tiring to be white all the time.

When I lived in France, there were days that I could pass as French, at least until I opened my mouth. If I walked down the street, got on a subway, sat in a café, I could do it without a big neon sign over my head flashing: DIFFERENT.

Of course, I was a foreigner, and spoke with an accent, and had to adapt to differences of culture and cuisine and all the rest. And I revel in that. It’s why I love living in foreign countries.

But at least there, it was vaguely possible to have encounters that did not have, at their core, the fact that I wan’t French. It was vaguely possible, when I was tired of celebrating the differences, to blend.

Here, not so much. I’m a toubab, I will always be a toubab. I could live in Senegal for the rest of my life, learn to speak every local language, and dance sabar like a pro. I will still be a toubab. And the fact that I could do those things would still be somewhat comical.

I don’t want to change who I am. And having black skin wouldn’t change my American-ness.

But it would be a relief, if, just sometimes, I could take off the toubab costume, and just be a person on the bus, instead of a white person on the bus.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Under the wire

As Rose and I raced to the taxi with our new friend John, in town for a couple days, we tried to explain how unusual this level of stress was.

"But this ferry," the one to Goree Island, "is the only thing that runs on time."

"Actually, it's the only thing in Senegal that has a schedule, full stop."

There's no such thing as a bus schedule, it goes when it's full. And the one train running in Senegal (that I know of anyway), from Dakar to Bamako, Mali, is famous for being days late.

But the ferry runs many times a day, and sticks to the schedule.

Unfortunately, we thought it was scheduled to leave at 8:30. We were wrong. At 7:10, we got a text message that it was actually leaving at 8:00.

We were going to Gorée for a music festival. Tons of big names — Vivian N'Dour, Daara J, Ismael Lo — were playing, as well as a fairly famous reggae singer, Dread Maxime, who I've tried to see at least three times, and always missed.

The ferry leaves from the very tip of downtown Dakar. We live about as far from that as possible, without leaving the Dakar-peninsula. On a good day, with no traffic, it takes about half an hour.

It was not a good day with no traffic.

So long story short (skipping the cellphone updates from Théo, who'd actually left on time: "the boat's waiting for someone. Hurry and you might make it" and the moment where we arrived at the dock to watch it pull away) we missed the boat.

The next one wasn't until 10:30, putting us on the island by 11:00. We missed all the big names, including Dread Maxime (of course), but arrived in plenty of time to see the oldest troupe of Moroccan musicians anywhere (they were actually very cool). Also on offer, a band featuring every living resident of Martinique, dressed in matching red, green and yellow jester outfits (actually, also fairly cool, especially the faux-martial arts dance).

And then we tried to board the 1 am ferry to come home. It was the last scheduled ferry of the night, and we were ready to go home and go to bed.

Nope. The ferry was going to wait until the concert ended. At 3:45 am. We rolled into our apartment at 5:15. So much for sticking to the schedule.

All of which is a long way of saying that I was tired y'all, and didn't get around to writing my real blog post.

Return to question-answering tomorrow. Have a great weekend, y'all.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Hear me roar

LeacC asks:

Is life different for women there than in the States? Since I started reading recently...what is your job there?

There’s a lot to say here and a lot of ways to go with an answer.

Do you mean is life as a Senegalese woman in Senegal different than life for an American woman in America? Or do you mean is life as an American woman in Senegal different than life as an American woman in America?

I’ll try to answer both.

Looking just at gender relations, there are some major differences for women born here versus women born in the states. For one thing, polygamy is widely practiced, so many woman have to get used to the idea of sharing their husband with as many as three other women.

In poor families, when there isn’t enough money to keep all the children in school, education for sons is often prioritized over that for daughters. As a result, women are much less likely to be found as skilled laborers (tailors, electricians, plumbers) which can pay a lot more than unskilled jobs, like being a maid or a cook.

And the birth rate is very high in Senegal, on average more than four children per family, so most women spend a lot of time taking care of babies.

That being said, Senegal is not the worst country in the world to be a woman. Women hold key government posts and jobs at various levels in private business. In cities, at least, women can wear whatever they want, go wherever they want, and do what they want. The more remote villages tend to stick to traditional dress, which isn’t any more or less restrictive for women than for men.

Women are often the most creative entrepreneurs and the real force in families. Recently, Senegal has made headlines because tens of thousands of its citizens have boarded rickety wooden fishing boats in the hopes of reaching Europe (usually via Spain’s Canary Islands off the western coast of Africa). They pay small fortunes to get their place, and yet many die en route. And even if they reach the Canary Islands, many get send home with little more than a sandwich and $20.

It’s a huge deal here, and in recent weeks a group of women in an impoverished Dakar suburb, many of whose sons have died trying to reach Europe, have begun advocating to slow the exodus.

Women have a voice in Senegal and they use it.

For me, living in Dakar, again, just talking gender, my life isn’t much different than it would be in DC. I get more marriage proposals than I used to get in DC, and that is gender specific. Women don’t hit on men as blatantly, not by far. But the desire for a toubab boyfriend/husband seems just as strong, just expressed a little differently.

I sometimes wonder, though, how I’m perceived.

In some ways, Senegal is a very socially conservative country. Most people live with their families until they get married. You don’t see people kissing in public, and in households crowded with tens of people, it’s hard to imagine how people get any alone time (although there are plenty of babies being born out of wedlock, so you know it’s happening).

Rose and I live on our own, with no family. I have a boyfriend who comes into my house, even when there’s no one else home. I go out late at night, to parties and bars, sometimes on my own (if I’m meeting friends) and come home even later, again on my own.

And there seem also to be some preconceived notions of western women and promiscuity, maybe because of what people here see in movies. That’s another part of the reason white girls get hit on so often, I think.

So I wonder. Am I respectable? I don’t mean, do my friends respect me because they do. And I don’t mean that I’m doing anything I feel is morally wrong or that I think I should change my behavior.

But Théo kisses me good-bye when he walks me to a taxi. Northing racy, but I still wonder, would he do that if I were Senegalese? Would a Senegalese girl do that?

It doesn’t so much matter what people think of me. As opposed to my friends who are Peace Corps Volunteers or missionaries, whose work depends on their reception by the community. And even if they wouldn’t let their daughters behave the way I do (which may or may not be true), nobody’s going to get in my way. Aside from the fact that I’m an independent adult, I’m a foreigner, and most people seem fine with believing that’s just how it’s done where I’m from.

So that was a fairly esoteric answer. Tomorrow will be more fun, I promise.

As for question deux, you’ll have to wait. Margaret asks kind of the same question, but wants a lot more details, so you’ll get your answer then.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

You’ve got questions

First of all. Check out the number one cool thing about Senegal. (Found via my referral log).

My brother claims that I am now officially a big fish in a small pond, and that I need to find a bigger pond or else I'll end up like a tiny, stunted goldfish who never realizes her potential. He suggested Antarctica.

But I promise: I won’t let this go to my head.


Meanwhile, Dear Interweb,

Thank you for your questions. You made my afternoon.

Please continue to ask more questions.

I heart you,

P.S. Doomu Senegal, you didn’t ask a question, but you totally left the world’s most awesome comment. Ak beug na ko bind ci Wolof, waaye xamuma…. (And that’s probably totally ungrammatical…) Dinaa lekk theibugen pour yow. (Eek, more ungrammaticality!) Jangal ak jamm ci Amerik!


For lack of a better system, I’m going to answer one question a day, in the order in which they arrived, until I run out.

So without further ado, Lauren asks:

You wrote a few months back about being in a relationship with a Senegalese man. Do you have any current prospects? How is the love life? Do you miss dating American men?

Dearest blog friends,

There's something I've been keeping from you.

Remember when I made a big deal about a certain dreamy Senegalese boy?

Theo and Phillipe
(He's the one not wearing sunglasses.)

And when I made an even bigger deal about breaking up with him?

Well, here's what I never told you. It totally didn’t stick.

We were broken up for a month or so, during which time I had a big ol’ crush on a Senegalese boy whose family came from Benin, and went on a date or two with a different boy, actually from Benin.

But throughout, Théo refused to disappear. I’d told him we could be friends, so he’d send me text messages, and sign them, “your friend, Théo.”

One day he came over to surprise me with mangoes from his aunt’s backyard tree (but I wasn’t home).

Another day he invited me to dinner—which he cooked. (Which is especially impressive considering that Senegalese boys? Do. Not. Cook. Ismaillah told me the other day he doesn’t know how to make white rice.)

And I kept pretending (mostly to myself) that I wasn’t totally thrilled that I got to hang out with him still, and that I wasn’t still thinking about him all the time.

And then I came home from Israel, and went to celebrate a big summer festival with his family (ostensibly the guest of his sister, my good friend). Of course, just as I was admitting to myself that this whole broken up thing wasn’t working out for me, he decided to give up on me entirely. But… we worked it out.

He’s the one, by the way, who bought me ngalax the other day.

He’s also in one of the pictures in the posting about giving away the shoes.

So do I miss American boys? Well, to be honest, I didn’t date a lot of American boys when I was in America, so I don’t know that I can say that I do.

There are definitely challenges to dating Théo. For one thing, even though French is our common language, it’s neither of our first languages.

And there’s baggage that comes along with a relationship between a Senegalese person and a westerner.

You can only have complete strangers declare their undying love to you simply because of your white skin and supposed riches so many times (I had one taxi driver tell me, flat out, that he wanted a white wife so he would never have to work again) before you begin to develop a bit of a complex.

And on the flipside, Théo hates the assumption that he’s a kept man, only in it for the money. But what I earn for a single day’s work at VOA can be more than he’ll earn in an entire month. So it can be… complicated.

But then he comes over and we cook dinner together and watch a DVD (dubbed in French, with English subtitles) curled up on (what passes for) the couch, and…

Well… He makes me happy.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Dreams of fluffy blankets and frozen toes

My favorite thing about having seasons is the changing over between them. Because after a long, cold, gray winter, that first moment of sunny, green, warm spring is a revelation.

And after months of heat, humidity and tank tops, who doesn't love pulling on a brand new sweater in September or October?

So okay. There's not quite the same range of difference between winter and summer around these parts. It's November, and I'm still wandering around in tank tops and shorts, and sleeping with the fan on at night.

I won't deny that there were cold February days in DC that prompted me to muse dreamily of living in California or else anyplace where I'd never contemplate walking down the street with my eyes closed because the frigid air was stinging my corneas.

But I miss being cold.

I miss wearing long sleeves. Or hell, long pants.

I miss snuggling under blankets and never wanting to get out.

I miss the relief of stepping inside and shutting the door behind you, finally able to shed layers of hats, scarves, gloves, and coats.

But in the interest of staying positive, and also of giving credit where it's due, I will admit that, if you were inclined to notice, you'd have to admit that we have clearly changed seasons.

This may not be autumn as I've been used to recognizing it, but the signs are there.

Last week, I turned the water heater back on. After months of frosty showers (twice a day, at least, and easily the best moments of any day) I found that I didn't want to submerge myself in cold water anymore.

And for the past couple of weeks, I've been able to sit in my living room at night with the balcony door shut. It can be a bit stuffy, but it's bearable. And it also means fewer mosquitoes get inside.

Speaking of which, and last night's THREE mosquitoes in the mosquito net notwithstanding, there are fewer mosquitoes in general. Although I'm not ready to declare victory on that one, because THREE MOSQUITOES. IN MY MOSQUITO NET. It was brutal.

I know there's more to come. When I arrived here last February, I wore long sleeves and closed shoes and slept with a blanket. It seems like a distant dream, but I have faith that it'll happen again.


In the meantime, I have to admit, that this EVERY DAY blogging thing is NOT easy.

I know you all believe me when I tell you that I'm an exciting adventurer of international fame, and my every moment is filled with unbelievable moments of discovery and wonder.

But I gotta come clean. Most days, my life is pretty... boring.

So to kick off Week Two of the Incredible NaBloPoMo Challenge, I'm instigating:

Naomi's Blog: Full Disclosure

Email me or comment with questions, and I promise to answer every one. Questions about life in Senegal? Obscure Senegalese Muslim holidays? My social life? My professional life? Whether those pants *really* flatter your figure?

Full disclosure.

Yeah, I know, you probably don't have any questions. But try to think of one. It'd be a mitzvah!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A big, giant hypocrite

Or, Noames gets political, sorta, for the first and last time

Elections are a big deal, over here on the dark continent.

You know, what with all the coups and dictators and wars, and stuff.

So when a country manages to pull off the grand ol’ process we like to call “democracy,” there are all sorts of people who made a big deal out of it.

Senegal happens to have a robust democracy. There have been three presidents since independence, peaceful transfers of power, vocal, independent media, and no coups. And when the incumbent lost to long-time opposition member Abdoulaye Wade in 2000, he respected the results and stepped aside.

So when my friends here tell me that they’re not going to bother voting in the elections next February, because all the politicians are the same, and it doesn’t make any difference, I get all preachy.

You have to vote. Democracy is a privilege! If you don’t take your chance to have your say, how will things get better?

And all sorts of obnoxiosity.

Of course, I’ve given the same speeches to friends in America who didn’t bother to vote in 2004.

And so, today’s election day. Surely I filed my absentee ballot months ago, right?

I mean, right?


Not even a little bit.

I’ve been getting reminders to apply for an absentee ballot from the embassy for months. And I’ve ignored all of them.

If I have an excuse, it’s that I was registered to vote in DC, which doesn’t have a voting representative in the House or any Senators.

And that I don’t live in DC any more. Officially I live in Florida. That’s where my mail goes, anyway. But I’m not registered there. And I know nothing about local politics. And that absentee ballots don’t count for anything anyway.

I’ll just go be quiet now.

Monday, November 06, 2006

What's cooking?

In the neighborhood by the Voice of America office, you can buy a bowl of really tasty peanut butter beef stew with white rice for less than 75 cents.

But you have to know where to look.

If you look at the corner with American eyes, you might only see the French-style bakery across the street, where you can by pre-made ham and cheese (and LOTS of butter) sandwiches for $2.

If you look with Senegalese eyes, you'd know that the makeshift tent with a roughly-hewn wooden table and a bored-looking woman sprawled on one of the benches is a restaurant and the woman is the proprietor and chef. It'll be easier to see it at 1 pm when the food is ready and the benches are filled with people eating.

If you know to look for it, you'll see the small room with a roaring fire in the fireplace, with giant logs sticking out and a grill stretching across the flames. You'll see the man with the 14-inch knife hacking an animal leg into bite size chunks, throwing them on the grill, dousing them with mustard, and wrapping it up in brown paper for customers sitting outside.

But don't look for the stew-lady at 10 pm. And don't look for the barbecue guy at lunchtime. That's just not how it works.

There are no Golden Arches. Signs of any kind are just not a given. Sometimes they're there, sometimes not. Sometimes you just need to know that the private house down the street serves lunch. Someone will tell you if you ask. But you have to know to ask.

And so, even after nine months, Dakar still holds plenty of surprises.

Last night, it was ngalax: couscous served with a sweetened peanut butter sauce.

I hadn't had it since Easter, when all the Catholics I know cooked up huge vats of it to serve to family and give away to friends. I loved it, and looking at pictures from the holiday featuring some shots of its preparation, said so.

"Really?" my friend asked. "Well they sell it just behind there." He gestured vaguely.

And then a little later, he disappeared without telling me why, and came back with two pastic baggies filled with ngalax, and a third with Bissap juice.

So it's still a mystery. But now I know, somewhere around there, someone sells it nightly. Probably some woman or group of women, sitting around coolers, chatting with each other like that's the only reason they're there.

I'll have to look.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The African Way

Yesterday, I had invited a friend over for the afternoon.

I had to pay my rent in the morning (a 2-hour process that involves getting the entire sum in cash, going to the rental agency office in person, and taking home the handwritten receipt) so I told her to stop by after lunch. "2 o'clock or so?" I said.

And so at 10:30, I headed out to West Foire with a wad of bills. By 11:30 the deed was done, and I was on my way home. I stopped at a bakery at N'Gor, where I have to switch buses anyway, to pick up some snacks for N'diare (the friend) and I to munch on. I went with some fattening but tasty looking mini-quiches.

Once back in my neighborhood, I went to all the little grocery boutiques (and one private home) looking for Bissap juice (a local fruit that makes a tasty, red juice). Then, unsuccessful, I made a second circuit looking for Fanta. And, finally, I bought a box of mango juice.

Finally back at my apartment, parched and sleepy, at 12:45, I made myself a quick sandwich, and took a shower, and took to my bed to read and rest. Which quickly turned into a nap.

When my mother called at 10 past three, I was dead asleep.

When I finished checking my email and chatting with people online at 4, I was hungry.

I putzed around on the internet for a little while longer.

But the quiches, they were calling my name. So I cut one of them in half, brought it back to the computer, and started munching.

And then went right back into the kitchen and finished both baby quiches.

Which is kind of gross (BOTH quiches, I needed?). And also a problem because now all I had to serve my guest was some mango juice in a box.

Except it was after 4:30. I'd expected her around 2. She hadn't called to indicate she was late or on her way. Surely at this point, I should just assume she wasn't coming.

At a quarter-past five, there was a knock at the door.

There she was, with her adorable, incredibly tall 2 year old son. More than three hours "late."

Except she wasn't late. She'd prepared lunch for her family--untold dozens in two houses across the street from one another; the women take turns preparing meals--ate with them, and then come straight over. That was just how long it took.

And so I welcomed her in. I called my running buddies, who I had been supposed to meet an hour later, and told them I'd have to cancel because I had a guest. And I prentended that I'd never meant to serve baby quiches (pay no attention to the cheesy, flaky pastry crumbs on the dish on the coffee table).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Small victories

At 10 past three, I was racing out my door, in the sticky afternoon swelter.

I had already filed a story for Voice of America that morning, and was now on my way to being late for a swim date with my friend Cecilia.

We were supposed to be meeting at 3:30, and the only way I’d come close to making it was by taking a taxi, and I was still at least a five-minute walk from the corner where the taxis passed.

But there was a taxi right in front of my door, just sitting there. Hoping that he had just dropped someone off and would be willing to take a new client, I asked him if he was on his way out. No, he said, he was waiting for someone.

No worries. I raced onward. But then Gallo called to me and asked me where I was going.

Thinking he just wanted to go through the greeting process, I sort of glanced over my shoulder and shouted “the pool, the Olympic pool” without stopping. I didn’t want to get stuck discussing the finer points of the heat.

But he surprised me. “Get in!” he shouted after me.

It turned out that the taxi was waiting for Ismaillah, who was on his way to… the Olympic pool! The woman who owns our building has a beauty shop there, and he’d been working all day carting things back and forth. And now he was on his way back, and Madame Landlady was footing the bill.

Should this not have excited me that much?


I’ve become fairly accustomed to my pool-flailing manner. It is, you could say, what I do. Who I am, really. Others swim. I flail. It’s nice to have a mark of distinction in this crazy-mixed-up-world we call Earth.

So imagine my shock when I kicked off the wall at the same time as Cecilia only to discover that we were smoothly swimming side by side.

Granted she was doing a breaststroke, and I was doing (my attempt at) the front crawl. But for a good three-quarters of the 50 meter pool, I managed to keep at the same pace as her, without particularly meaning to.

I had switched to breathing on every fourth stroke, instead of every second. And something seemed to have clicked, and the whole movement suddenly seemed natural.

Of course, then I ran out of breath, and had to stop, sputter and tread water. Cecilia left me far behind and I never caught up.

But it was pretty cool while it lasted.

So here’s my question to all the swimmers out there:

In theory, and now occasionally in practice, I’ve got this breathing thing down. It’s a major improvement over where I was even a few weeks ago. But. The breaths I take are fairly shallow.

You know that feeling when you take a deep breath, and your lungs fill until you reach a sort of threshold and your whole body is like “ahhhh, NOW I have enough air?” And you don’t need to do that on every breath, but after a while you just NEED a deep breath of air?

Well, when I’m swimming, I don’t get those deep breaths, and so after a while, I just… run out of air. Even though I’m breathing fairly often.

So… How do I fix that?

I’m perfectly willing to believe it’s just a question of not being in shape. Because I’m definitely not. In shape. (See: collapsing after attempts at jogging; see also: being lapped by neighborhood snails).

But if there’s a technique issue, I’m all ears.

Because I am SO conquering this learning to swim thing.

Friday, November 03, 2006

I'll take a third wife, with a side of fries and a coke

I came home from the office yesterday to the sounds of Naw and Ismaillah making fun of Gallo in Wolof.

Naw runs the boutique in my neighborhood. Aside from being my source for all things snacky or useful, from chocolate-filled cookies to bleach to bug death spray, he is one of my favorite people in Dakar.

Rose talked about him endlessly, before I moved into this apartment, but it wasn't until I had been living here on my own, while Rose spent six weeks in Europe, that I learned to fully appreciate him. He knows everybody and everything that goes on in our neighborhood. And he's got a perceptive and analytical eye for Senegalese culture, a fairly rare trait. Plus, having spent most of his childhood in the Gambia, a former British colony, he speaks English fluently.

Ismaillah and Gallo are the "guardians" for my building and the one next door. Sort of a cross between a doorman, super, and night watchman. They're both around all the time, and thus are some of the friendly faces in my neighborhood. Whenever I come home, whether from an afternoon downtown or a month in the US, they greet me like they haven't seen me in forever, and ask me how it was.

And Ismaillah has the addition honor of being my cockroach killer (only for the really enormous ones).***

The Wolof was too fast and complicated for me to understand yesterday afternoon, but the tone was obviously teasing, and Gallo was obviously on the wrong end.

Afterwards, Naw explained.

"Gallo has a third wife today. And so we had to laugh at him."

"I didn't even know he had a second wife. I thought he had just the one."

"Me neither. He's the one who told me that he has two wives. But now he says he got a third one yesterday."

Polygamy is legal and common in Senegal. According to Muslim law, men are allowed up to four wives. In villages, where traditional African customs sometimes still hold sway, I've heard of men with six or seven. I've even heard of Catholics with multiple wives, although the Catholics I know will tell you that their religion only allows them the one.

Gallo lives in a small room in the house next door, where he's employed. His wife, the one that I knew about, lives in the village he came from, not far from Dakar. I couldn't tell you where the second one lives, but I'd guess she's also in the village.

And the third one?

According to Gallo, who I asked a little while later, was picked up by his father on Sunday. He claims he had no idea he'd acquired this extra spouse until the day before yesterday, when he went to his family's house, and his father broke the news.

I'm not sure I believe him though. People will tell you anything, especially when they think you'll disapprove.

And all Senegalese people know that white people are incredibly weird about polygamy.

*** Lord, I talk about bugs a lot here.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Last time I'll mention them, I promise


Please note the relative size of leaves and spiders.

That's all I'm saying.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Running out of steam

There was a time when running four miles on tired, cramped legs didn't seem all that big a deal. After all, I'd already run 14 miles that morning.

I'm just saying.

Because today I saw girl collapse in a near faint on her kitchen floor after running for a grand total of about 50 minutes.

And that girl? Was me.


As I mentioned in my last post, I'm training for a half marathon. It's not until March or so (not sure of the exact date) so I have plenty of time. Which is good, because I'm going to need it.

Pape Badji, my friend, running buddy, and (sort of) coach keeps me honest and keeps me running. We run together about 4 times a week, and he's recently recruited his cousin, Matar, to the cause, who runs with us sometimes, and also runs with me on days when Badji has work.

Which means that I barely have to motivate myself out the door, because there's pretty much always someone waiting for me. Someone who keeps me company, as well as protecting me from crazy drivers (not so necessary, but nice) and from scary spiders (mostly by laughing at me while I dash across the street to avoid coming within two feet of one of their web mansions).

But until this morning, our runs have averaged 30-35 minutes. Which, you can imagine, means the distance falls somewhat short of a full half-marathon. So today I determined we were going to run for an hour. And, instead of running in the evening, as has been our habit, we were going to run in the morning.

I prepared very well for this "long" run last night, by eating almost nothing for dinner, capping off a day when pretty much all I'd eaten was a banana, a bowl of cereal, and some white rice (with a bit of peanut butter stew).

And so I couldn't claim to be surprised when my legs felt leaden and I had no energy. I also cleverly chose not to bring any water or gatorade on the run.

Because apparently, I forget quickly, and need to relearn every lesson the hard way. Every. Single. Time.

Here's the best part, though. As I was pathetically flailing and simpering, Badji was chipper, encouraging, and, clearly, hardly even winded. This, despite the fact that he hadn't slept that night, because he had the night shift at his guard job.


Anyway, we're going to try again tomorrow. I going to eat well today, including pasta with tomato-zucchini sauce for dinner, and, inshallah, I will perform more respectably.

In other news: Someone has determined to make this month "NaBloPoMo". Which stands for National Blog Posting Month. Like NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month.

Okay, I know. Normal people have never heard of any of those things. But here's the deal. During the month of November, if you sign up for NaBloPoMo, you have to post at least once a day.

And because I like jumping on bandwagons, and lots of blogs that I respect seem to be doing it, and if they jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge then it must be because it's FUN dammit... Well, because of all that, I'm gonna try it too.

So check back often, and see how boring I can be (on a daily basis!) for the next 30 days.